Ok, so the title of this post may have given it away, but (before you saw it) did you know that you can go on safari in Sri Lanka?
If a travel blogger who’s traveled a fair bit of Asia didn’t know about it, then odds are the average travel enthusiast probably wouldn’t be aware that a Sri Lankan safari is even an option. So let’s talk about what to expect on a Wilpattu National Park safari —
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Visiting Wilpattu National Park
Wilpattu National Park is located in northeast Sri Lanka, about a 45 minute drive west from Anuradhapura and a 4 hour drive north from Colombo. It’s the largest national park in Sri Lanka (508 sq mi), though visitors are only allowed to access about a quarter of it.
If you don’t have your own transport, the cheapest option is to take a tuk tuk there from Anuradhapura (about US$6 each way). Otherwise, the easiest option is to book a Wilpattu National Park safari in advance that includes transport from your hotel near Wilpattu (more on that below!).
The park is open daily from 6am-6pm, only 4WD vehicles are allowed inside, and all visitors must be accompanied by a guide.
Wilpattu is one of the oldest national parks in Sri Lanka. It is believed to have been “discovered” in the 5th century BC, though it wasn’t declared a national park until 1938. The widespread scattering of archeological ruins throughout the park suggest that an ancient civilization was indeed present here thousands of years ago.
The main takeaway from Wilpattu’s history is that it was closed for 20+ years during the Sri Lankan civil war, and only recently reopened for tourism in 2010. Both park infrastructure and wildlife were negatively impacted by the lengthy closure, and they’re still recovering today. So expect a no-frills experience when you visit Wilpattu National Park.
Now, let’s address the baby elephant in the room (ha, I crack myself up): how does a Sri Lankan safari compare to an African safari?
I think it’s super important to set the right expectations before embarking on a safari in Sri Lanka, so let’s talk about it.
There’s a reason why you’ve heard about African safaris, but possibly/probably not Sri Lankan safaris: African safaris are world renowned, typically done in luxury, and often the whole reason why someone might book a trip to Africa in the first place. People plan trips around going on safari in Africa – it’s the stuff of bucket lists. And it’s all but guaranteed that you’ll see lots of big exotic animals on any game drive you do in Africa.
Sri Lankan safaris, by contrast, are less flashy: there are far fewer luxury lodges to stay at, and fewer animals to see overall. You probably wouldn’t book a trip to Sri Lanka just to go on safari, but rather incorporate a safari into your Sri Lanka itinerary.
This is actually a GOOD thing in my opinion, because in Sri Lanka, you have an incredible opportunity to go on safari without having to spend thousands of dollars on a dedicated safari trip like you would in going to Africa. You can simply book your trip and slot a safari into one day of your Sri Lanka itinerary without breaking the bank.
So how much does a Wilpattu National Park safari cost?
Prices change frequently in Sri Lanka, so it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact cost for a safari. The cheapest safari option is to DIY, i.e. find your own transport to Wilpattu National Park, pay the entrance fee (estimate: 15000 LKR, or ~US$46 per person), and try to book a Jeep/driver on the spot (estimate: 250000 LKR, or ~US$77 per Jeep, depending on time required). Note that I did not source these fees myself, I’m just going off of some other websites I found.
Our guide did confirm that for two people, you can expect to pay about US$100/person for a full day safari in Wilpattu National Park including all fees and taxes. It would be slightly less than that if you had more people with you (a Jeep can seat up to 6), or if you only went for a half day safari.
The other option is to book a Wilpattu National Park safari in advance, which is what I would have done had I been traveling Sri Lanka independently. Prices tend to be a bit higher (around the US$150 mark), but include hotel transfers and provide peace of mind of knowing that it’s all taken care of before you even arrive. No need to hire a tuk tuk to get to the park, no need to worry about finding a driver to take you on safari at the last minute.
Here are some Wilpattu National Park safari options you can book:
BOOK YOUR WILPATTU NATIONAL PARK SAFARI HERE:
The thing that really struck me as we were on our Jeep tour was how varied the landscape in Wilpattu National Park is.
In my mind, I had imagined us driving through wide open fields, where the horizon was always visible. In reality, we mostly drove through scrub and bushland, on a red dirt road winding its way through the trees. I’m not sure what it reminded me of, but it definitely wasn’t what I pictured a Sri Lankan safari to look like (which isn’t a bad thing)!
Wilpattu actually means “land of lakes”, and I can confirm: it sure is! There are small saucer-shaped lakes dotted all around the park, which serve as waterholes for the animals. Indeed, we witnessed an elephant, kingfisher, water buffalo, crocodiles, and deer around these lakes.
On a Wilpattu National Park safari, you’ll also drive past wetlands, sand dunes, scrubland, forest – and you might even spot some ruins along the way (remnants from the nearby ancient city of Anaradhapura).
Wilpattu National Park is known primarily for its leopards, and secondarily for its elephants and sloth bears.
Leopards are THE thing to see at Wilpattu, and sightings are fairly frequent but not guaranteed. I asked our guide what he thought the chances were of us seeing a leopard and he said maybe 80%? You can increase those odds by doing a full day safari, and by going either first thing in the morning or closer to sunset. We did an afternoon safari (approx. 3-6pm) and saw two leopards.
The Sri Lankan leopard is endangered and can only be found in Wilpattu National Park and in Yala National Park. Yala is much more popular and has a lot more to see, animal-wise, than Wilpattu; for this reason, many people prefer to visit Wilpattu for a peaceful and dedicated leopard-spotting experience.
As I mentioned, we were lucky enough to spot two leopards on our Wilpattu National Park safari! They were super far away though, barely visible without the aid of a zoom lens or binoculars. I’m pretty sure the safari guides let each other know when a leopard’s been spotted, because we abruptly turned around and made a beeline to the spot without warning – and when we arrived, there were like 5 other Jeeps already there.
Elephants, however, can be found all across Sri Lanka. We even spotted one on the side of the road when we were driving from Kandy to Pottuvil!
We only saw one (elderly female) elephant on our Wilpattu National Park safari. If seeing elephants on a Sri Lankan safari is top priority for you, you might be better off visiting a different national park that’s more known for its elephant population, such as Udawalawe National Park.
Unfortunately we didn’t see any sloth bears on this Sri Lanka safari :(
We did, however, see plenty of other wildlife on our Wilpattu National Park safari, including: spotted deer, peacock, common kingfisher, owl, hornbill, crocodile, and water buffalo.
BOOK YOUR WILPATTU NATIONAL PARK SAFARI HERE:
FAQ About Wilpattu National Park Safaris in Sri Lanka
Where is Wilpattu National Park?
Wilpattu National Park is located in northeast Sri Lanka, about 38km west of Anuradhapura and 185km north of Colombo.
Why is Wilpattu National Park famous?
Wilpattu is famous for its leopard population. It’s one of the top two places in Sri Lanka to see them!
What animals can you see at Wilpattu National Park?
On a Wilpattu National Park safari, you can spot any of the below wildlife (among others):
- Sloth bear
- Spotted deer
- Common kingfisher
- Junglefowl (chicken)
- Water buffalo
- Sambar (elk)
- Painted stork
- White egret
How many leopards are there in Wilpattu National Park?
There’s said to be 600-700 leopards in all of Sri Lanka. According to this study, they estimate that there should be about 350 leopards in Wilpattu National Park.
What is the best time to visit Wilpattu National Park?
The best time to visit Wilpattu National Park is during the dry season, which is February through September.
May through September is ideal as these months are when there’s a drought, which means more animals tend to come out of hiding in search of water.
February through April is also a good time to visit Wilpattu, but these months aren’t yet drought-y so there might be a little less wildlife action while you’re on safari.
Avoid visiting from late October through January, as this is the wet season. Heavy monsoonal rains can flood the tracks through the park, making it impossible for Sri Lanka safaris to operate during this time.
Is Wilpattu National Park worth visiting?
YES, Wilpattu National Park is worth visiting, especially if you prefer to avoid crowds of tourists when you travel. It’s never too busy, and odds of seeing a leopard there are pretty good.
How much does a Wilpattu National Park safari cost?
Prices fluctuate and depend on how many people are going on safari with you, but for a group of two you can expect to pay about US$100/person for a full day Wilpattu National Park safari including a guide, entrance fee, and taxes.
Alternatively, a pre-booked tour (i.e. booked online with a reputable vendor like Viator or GetYourGuide) will cost about US$150/person.
What other Sri Lanka safaris are there?
Other parks where you can go on safari in Sri Lanka include:
- Yala National Park
- Udawalawe National Park
- Minneriya National Park
- Kumana National Park
- Kaudulla National Park
- Gal Oya National Park (boat safari)
What is the difference between Yala and Wilpattu National Park?
Yala National Park:
- is located in the southeast of Sri Lanka
- is the most-visited national park in Sri Lanka
- has a higher density of leopards
Wilpattu National Park:
- is 35% larger than Yala National Park
- is located in the northwest of Sri Lanka
- is much less crowded
- also has a good number of leopards (but it’s a bigger park, so has a lower density of them)
BOOK YOUR WILPATTU NATIONAL PARK SAFARI HERE:
READ MORE ABOUT SRI LANKA IN THESE POSTS:
- Beautiful Places of Sri Lanka: 40 Photos To Spark Your Wanderlust
- 10-Day Sri Lanka Itinerary
- 7 Fun Facts About Sri Lanka (That You Probably Didn’t Know)
- The Best 4 & 5 Star Hotels in Sri Lanka (Boutique Hotels Included!)
Thank you to Sri Lanka Tourism for hosting me for 2 weeks in Sri Lanka. Note that all opinions expressed here and elsewhere on this blog are my unbiased own, and are uninfluenced by any gifts or incentives I may receive.